Winner: NBA teams hoping to upgrade
The Jaylen Brown situation is very, very complicated. Brown nabbed a Second Team All-NBA spot this year (although he didn’t make my hypothetical squad!), making him eligible for a supermax contract. Brown is a vice president of the player’s union, and he is going to want every cent that he has earned. He averaged nearly 27 points per game this season on the best field goal percentage of his life, and at 26 years old, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can get better.
But the new collective bargaining agreement comes into effect in 2024, enacting some extremely punitive measures on the biggest-spending teams. Moreover, Brown is coming off of a horrible conference finals that saw his scoring and shooting percentages plummet like a cryptocurrency’s value. He was an impossibly putrid 7-for-43 from three-point range in seven games; by comparison, five different Miami Heat players made more triples despite only one, Caleb Martin, attempting as many.
Given Brown’s increasingly shaky postseason reputation (the assist-to-turnover numbers are abysmal and concerning), you can understand why Boston may be hesitant to shell out nearly $300 million. We know they’re paying everything they can to Jayson Tatum; a supermax for Brown will make it very, very difficult to put any other quality players around those two in the future.
So that leaves Brown’s future with Boston in doubt. The NBA is full of teams who can use a two-way wing with proven scoring and size (in fact, it’s almost every one of them). Players with Brown’s pedigree and age don’t become available very often, and it would behoove any small-market team to knock on Brad Stevens’ door asking what it would take to get JB.
The Celtics with Brown and Tatum are good enough to win an NBA title… but that might only be true for one more season, given how difficult roster-building will become for them in 2024. Brown is a needle-mover, and he would be highly coveted by teams that think they’re a piece away from contention. Let the bidding war begin.
Winner: Caleb Martin and Derrick White
In a series with plenty of stars, more ink was spilled about Caleb Martin and Derrick White than any of their teammates.
We’ve already talked plenty about Martin, who dominated a Celtics team that seemed determined not to guard him until it was too late. He continued his strong play in Game 7 with 10 rebounds and a scintillating 26 points on 16 shots. He scored in every way imaginable while playing solid defense and controlling the boards; it’s impossible to overstate how important he was to Miami’s victory (he even garnered four of the nine Conference Finals MVP votes).
Derrick White was damn near Martin’s equal, though. He was Boston’s best offensive player in Game 7 after Jayson Tatum turned an ankle in the first quarter, and he was the leading three-point maker in the series. An even crazier stat: White also led the series in blocks.
Jimmy Butler absolutely decimated the league’s best perimeter defender in Jrue Holiday when the Heat beat the Bucks; Derrick White came close to shutting him down over the final five games.
White had an uneven playoffs last season thanks to a balky jumper, and he spent the previous 350-ish days honing it for just such an opportunity. However, his transformation into a deadeye shooter and overall performance during these playoffs make the potential loss of Jaylen Brown a little more palatable.
Winner: The Miami narrative
In these playoffs, Miami has had to swim against a strong South Beach riptide. Barely surviving the play-in tournament; early injuries to Tyler Herro (their second-leading-scorer and best outside shooter) and Victor Oladipo and a later injury to Gabe Vincent; Bam Adebayo’s offensive inconsistency; Butler’s quiet mortality after his ankle sprain; a brutal schedule that sent Miami to two of the championship favorites.
And yet, they continually found a way. Even if the Heat had lost to the Celtics in seven games, this should have been the story of the unlikeliest of underdogs prevailing against a universe conspiring against them. It would have been a shame to see them remembered not for their unlikely success but for becoming the first team to blow a 3-0 lead.
And yet, some unholy devilwork saw Caleb Martin turn into Michael Jordan, Duncan Robinson play a vital role after missing two huge shots at the end of Game 6, Gabe Vincent outplay the Celtics’ guards, and so much more. The Heat survive, and regardless of what happens against Denver, their story will be fondly remembered by NBA fans all around the world — as it should be.
Loser: Grant Williams
I can’t fully explain the Grant Williams thing.
He’s not the quickest cat on the perimeter, but he’s a strong and physical defender who made 40% of his threes this year. And yet, Williams was yanked like a yo-yo in and out of the playoff rotation for the last six weeks. Then, just when it seemed he’d finally earned his way back in, he shot a combined 2 for 11 in Games 5, 6, and 7. Perhaps justifying his coach’s reluctance to play him, Williams had the worst plus/minus on the team for the series.
Williams is an upcoming restricted free agent whose 3-and-D skillset would fit many teams well. The Celtics will be prohibitively expensive sooner rather than later, though, and they may not be willing to meet Williams’ desired contract value of $15-20 million per year.
Williams’ stats have never jumped off the page, and coach Joe Mazzulla has preferred more offensively-oriented players during the playoffs. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the league that Williams has been on the pine so often during the playoffs, and it could impact his upcoming free agency.
Winner: Joe Mazzulla
Wait, did I say winner?
Mazzulla took over a team fresh off the Ime Udoka scandal and immediately made his mark. The Celtics leaned into an offensive identity to storm out of the gates, looking like the best team in the league for a while before eventually settling into second in the East.
But the bloom came off the rose quickly. Fans grew frustrated with Mazzulla’s lack of versatility and refusal to call momentum-changing timeouts. Players rarely openly complained, but Mazzulla and the team often seemed disconnected.
Direct comparisons to the previous Celtics coaches in Brad Stevens, a tactical wizard, and Udoka, who took the team to Game 6 of the Finals last year, did not help his cause.
And yet, Mazzulla’s ability to get to Game 7 seems almost certainly enough to allow him to keep his job. He just signed a multiple-year extension in February. A sweep at the hands of a diminished Miami Heat team might have been too much to handle, but now Mazzulla can plausibly argue he was a turned Jayson Tatum turned ankle away from taking this team back to the Finals (and making history in the process).
Notably, Tatum came out in support of Mazzulla after the game:
“It was his first year, we got to the conference finals Game 7,” Tatum said. “I don’t think people give him or us enough credit that, two days before season starts, we find out we’re going to have a new coach. We didn’t have Rob (Williams) the first 25, 30 games of the season, we never got a chance to have [Danilo Gallinari]. That was an adjustment. We all figured it out. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship. Didn’t happen. But I think Joe did a great job.”
While Mazzulla didn’t impress in these playoffs, he also noticeably grew. He finally started using timeouts, made several reasonable strategic and roster adjustments throughout the series, and — most importantly — seemed to get through to the players after a disastrous Game 3 thanks to the world’s most-talked-about Topgolf tournament. Even amidst strange context, it shouldn’t be lightly dismissed that he had the Celtics on the brink of something no one’s ever done before — coming back from down 3-0.
Mazzulla gained a lot of valuable experience in these playoffs. Coaches, like players, can improve, and the Celtics are reportedly looking to bolster his staff to help him further. I expect Mazzulla to be back next year as a far superior tactician.